Politically Savvy Friends

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Presidential Rundown

Dear Politically Savvy Friends,

When you were growing up, your parents probably told you that in polite conversation, stay away from three topics: race, religion, and politics. In a campaign for the White House, you expect politics to be front and center, so let's substitute the word gender. I have never seen an election for any office that has been so dominated by race, religion, and gender - and despite all the good words about "rising above" this stuff, the subterranean noise about this threatens to undermine the much more important debate about which candidate is the most qualified to move the United States ahead in the next four years.

In this first PSF ("Politically Savvy Friends") email in many months, I will touch on that subject and more from my "Beyond the Washington DC Beltway" perspective and then comment on this year's upcoming political battles in Pennsylvania. As many of you know, I spent fourteen years on Capitol Hill as chief of staff to a PA congressman - and then I returned home where I have the pleasure of wearing lots of hats in academia, the private sector, and the media. I do a lot of public speaking to organizations throughout the year, and this PSF e-letter helps synthesize my thoughts and hopefully gives you some cocktail talk.

Most of you on this mailing list have received PSFs in the past and (judging by your emails back to me) seem to welcome them, but if you prefer not to get them, use the unsubscribe key below. I don't want to be anyone's SPAM. More importantly, I welcome your comments back - and I especially appreciate a "hot tip" now and then about something "political." Email me at delano.jon@gmail.com. Thanks for being my eyes and ears out there.


The Race for the White House:

This has been an extraordinary political season in so many ways, and maybe that's not surprising. This is the first time since 1952 that we don't have a previously nationally elected figure running for president. Despite what some Democrats say, this race is wide open. That's because I don't believe that George W. Bush is really the issue in 2008. Most Americans, regardless of party, are ready to move on - and, if the Republicans play this right, they can retain the White House on November 4. And Democrats are fully capable of self-destructing over the stupidest things - to wit, this picayune tantrum (as seen on CNN's recent debate) by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

In the end, remember this election depends on electoral votes, not the popular vote. We learned that well in 2000 when George Bush became the first president since Benjamin Harrison in 1888 to win without the popular vote -- and it could have been repeated in 2004 when John Kerry would have been president, with a minority of the popular vote, had he just carried the state of Ohio - a switch of 60,000 votes would have made the difference.

As I look at the electoral vote in 2008, it's pretty hard for the Republican candidate, whoever he is, not to be ahead right now of whatever Democrat gets the nod. That's because Republican voting states (the "red" states) outnumber Democratic voting states (the "blue" states). One calculation I saw has the GOP already at 213 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. Such a scenario brings the battle back to the states that typically decide these elections: Florida (27 electoral votes), Pennsylvania (21), Ohio (20), Michigan (17), Wisconsin (10), Colorado (9), Oregon (7), Iowa (7), Nevada (5), and New Mexico (5). Of course, depending on the nominee, other states could be up for grabs like New Jersey (15) and Missouri (11).

My point is not to predict the winner but to suggest that it's not a done deal for the Democrats by any stretch. This election is just getting started.

The Republican Battle Goes On and On and On:

It's hard to remember the last time when Republican voters had such a wide choice of candidates with no clear front-runner at this stage of the campaign. John McCain has won New Hampshire and South Carolina, giving him 38 delegates, while Mitt Romney has won Wyoming, Michigan, and Nevada giving him 66 delegates. Mike Huckabee, the Iowa winner, has 25 delegates. Considering there are 2,380 Republican delegates and only 156 have been chosen, this race is hardly over.

Toss in Rudy Giuliani, who has 1 delegate so far, and you have a foursome that is competing vigorously for delegates in Florida on January 29. By the way, in the delegate battle, some states in the GOP race are winner-take-all, such as Florida. That means the Republican who wins Florida gets all 57 delegates (the state lost half its delegates because it jumped ahead of Super Duper Tuesday, February 5). Other upcoming winner-take-all states include New York, Missouri, Arizona, New Jersey, Utah, Connecticut, etc. (The Democrats forbid winner-take-all, apportioning almost all their delegates).

While the media seems to have blessed McCain as the front-runner, it's pretty hard to draw that conclusion so far. After 21 states vote on February 5, the picture should be a lot clearer, although I still don't think any candidate will have a majority of delegates to win nomination at the end of that evening. By the way, 975 delegates will be chosen that day, about 41 percent of the total.

The Democratic Battle Gets Closer:

The Democratic nomination fight is down to three candidates, although many dismiss John Edwards, preferring a knockdown between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Obama won Iowa and South Carolina, while Clinton won New Hampshire and Nevada. Michigan, won by Clinton, was stripped of all its delegates for starting early. But the proportionality rules of the Democratic Party (awarding pledged delegates generally through congressional districts) give Obama 57 delegates, Clinton 45 delegates, and Edwards 20 delegates. This does not count "super delegates," Democratic elected officials (like governors and members of Congress) some of whom have already picked their candidates and give Clinton the delegate lead right now. Of course, it takes 2,025 delegates to win nomination, so this is all so early.

South Carolina, with its sizeable African American vote, gave an easy win this Saturday to Obama. That sets up a major battle on Super Duper Tuesday (February 5) when 22 states from New York to California go to the polls. Forget Florida, which lost all its delegates because it jumped the queue. On Feb. 5, some 1,681 delegates are at stake, about 51 percent of all elected delegates. Wow.

Ironically, John Edwards can play a key role in this battle, if he wins enough votes to earn delegates. There's talk of him being a "king maker" at the convention, but that will require him to continue to get around 20 percent of the vote in the battles ahead. Will he? Still, after Super Duper Tuesday, it's very unlikely that either Clinton or Obama will have a majority of the delegate votes. Other big states like Virginia, Ohio, and Texas will vote later in February and early March. Pennsylvania with its 188 delegates does not vote until April 22.

Religion, Race & Gender:

(1) Religion Takes Front Stage

Americans always take religion seriously, or at least we say so. But the common mantra has been that religion should not a barrier to any individual's entry into politics. On the presidential level, however, the White House has almost always been a Protestant enclave, with only one Catholic ever elected president.

When John F. Kennedy campaigned, he had to assure folks that he would not take orders from a foreign pope. This year, Mitt Romney has had to make a similar pledge that the Mormon Church would not dictate his government decisions. Arguably, Romney has had a more difficult challenge than Kennedy. By 1960, Catholics were well accepted as mainstream Christians. For some, that is not yet true of Mormons, a religion difficult for many to understand, in part because of its own secrecy rules, its earlier (and now rejected) views on polygamy, race, and gender, and its peculiar origins (frankly, something one could say about most religions) through founder Joseph Smith's assertion in the 1820s that the angel Moroni led him to tablets of the Book of Mormon, which Mormons believe is Holy Scripture, along with the Bible. Although Mormons call themselves Christians, many Christians do not agree, some even calling it a sect.

Politically, Romney has had to assert that his church leaders will not dictate to him and, at the same time, reaffirm that he is a Christian, even a fundamentalist with whom Christian evangelicals in the Republican Party should feel comfortable. It's a difficult balancing act, but there's some evidence, so far at least, that Romney's religion has not been a barrier to winning primary votes.

The other religious aspect to Campaign 2008 has been Mike Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, who has no problem making references to his strong religious views. Now being a clergyman and a politician is hardly a new thing. When I worked in the Congress, I recall Cong. Robert Drinan (D/MA) was a Catholic priest, Cong. Bob Edgar (D/PA) was a Methodist minister, and Sen. John Danforth (R/MO) was an Episcopal priest. There may have been others, although the Vatican ordered Drinan to quit the House (which he did) so, as far as I know, no Catholic priests now serve in elected public positions.

Politically, Huckabee is the most culturally conservative candidate in the GOP race - and would seem a natural for Christian conservatives. But his populist economic policies, including support for some tax increases when he was governor of Arkansas, are sometimes at odds with "true" conservatives. While a clergyman running for public office troubles some, it's hardly unusual - and I suspect Huckabee will rise and fall on his views and personality, not his religion.

On the Democratic front, Barack Obama has had to fight an email attack that he is really a Muslim based on claims that he attended a Muslim school as a child in Indonesia. I first saw these emails months ago and dismissed them as nonsense. [The charges first surfaced when Obama ran for the U.S. Senate in Illinois in 2002]. Obama's father was a Luo from Kenya, apparently a non-practicing Muslim who had no real impact on his son's religious upbringing since he separated from Obama's mother when Obama was two, and later returned home to Kenya. Obama's mother then married an Indonesian foreign student, a Muslim, and the family moved to Jakarta when Obama was six. Obama did attend both a Catholic school and a public school there until he was ten, but his campaign insists it was not a Muslim religious school, a so-called madrassa where Muslims are taught to hate non-Muslims as infidels.

More importantly, at age ten, Obama returned home to Hawaii to live with his white maternal grandparents and attend a private, non-sectarian college prep school in Honolulu founded by Christian missionaries. In recent years, Obama has acknowledged that he didn't grow up in any particular religious faith but came to Jesus Christ in his 20s where he was baptized and has remained a congregant at the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago.

Politically, Obama and his campaign have shot back at the subterranean internet emails that link him to Islam. That his middle name is Hussein thickens the alleged cover-up of his Muslim roots, but the fact that Obama shares Saddam's name is of no more relevance than that my middle name ("William") is shared by plenty of scurrilous people. [By the way, most of us don't get to name ourselves, so no one should ever be blamed for that]. I have seen no evidence whatsoever that Obama is anything but what he says he is - a committed believing Christian. Moreover, even if Obama were a Muslim (which he is not), why would that be a "political issue" any more than Kennedy's Catholicism or Romney's Mormonism? Let's move on.

(2) Race Rears Its Color:

Nothing offends me more than the notion that race motivates voters, but none of us is naove. Almost all Americans take pride that this year an African American - well, actually he's half white and half black - is a major contender for the presidency of the United States. Win or lose, Barack Obama's political success this year is a monumental testament to America's political maturity.

Few things are more divisive than race, and when candidates (black or white) appeal for support on racial lines, it can cause earthquakes in the political groundscape. At the beginning of this campaign, the Democratic candidates did all they could to avoid any references to race. It didn't hurt that Hillary Clinton and her husband has always had strong ties to the black community.

So what changed? Well, some think the increasingly competitive race between Obama and Clinton encouraged both sides to find some advantage in racial politics. For Obama, he wanted to consolidate black voters behind his campaign where, early on, Clinton was beating him overwhelmingly. In a number of states, African Americans are a key to the Democratic nomination, and Obama needs those voters.

The trick for Obama is how to appeal to black voters without losing white voters. South Carolina was the first real test of that where half the Democratic voters were black. Exit polls showed that Obama has accomplished what he wanted - nearly 80 percent of African American voters in that state voted for Obama, but in the process he lost 76 percent of the white votes, something he cannot afford to do in upcoming primaries.

For Clinton, the challenge has been equally difficult. She needs African Americans in the primary for sure, but she needs those voters even more in November. After Obama accused Hillary and Bill Clinton of injecting race into this campaign, the anti-Clinton media has had a field day attacking the Clintons. It's hard to pin-point anything overtly racial in Bill Clinton's comments, but it probably doesn't matter since enough folks were convinced that he was playing a "race card" to win white votes for Hillary that it hurt her among black voters and probably some whites, too.

In my view, both candidates need to step back from this racial precipice. It's perfectly legitimate to criticize Obama for abstaining on votes in the Illinois legislature, or for being anti-war and then pro-war, or for carrying water for a slum landlord, just as it's legitimate to criticize Clinton for being pro-war before she was anti-war, or for being on Wal-Mart's board of directors, or for being cozy with Washington lobbyists. Better still, how about a debate on who's best on the economy, health care, education, and jobs? Yeah, I know. I'm asking too much.

(3) Gender Politics at Work:

For millions of women, including members of my own family, the fact that a woman could be the next president of the United States is decidedly liberating. Just as we should take pride in an African American's progress on this front, so do most Americans welcome the possible breaking of America's most formidable glass ceiling. Of course, just as some ask if Obama is the "right" black candidate, many ask the same of Clinton.

Although women make up a slight majority of the population and an even larger percentage of the voting public, only 13 of 100 senators is female and 61 of 435 members of the House are female. That's about 14 percent when women represent 51 percent of the nation. This, of course, is a huge improvement over twenty years ago, but hardly proportionate to the number of women in the population. In contrast, African Americans are doing much better politically (although not there yet), now numbering 43 in the Congress, about 8 percent of the body when their percentage of the total population is about 13 percent.

For Hillary Clinton, women appear to make up a large percentage of her supporters, although Obama beat her among women voters in both Iowa and South Carolina. Her challenge has been to attract women to her camp, without alienating men. When at an early debate before New Hampshire, Obama and Edwards appeared to team up against her - and then some in the media went ballistic went she appeared "emotional" in response to a town meeting question - many women and some men, too, saw a "double standard" at work.

Some people tell me that it is easier to break a racial barrier than a gender one. I don't know because I cannot speak from experience in either case. But for Clinton to become the first woman president, she is going to have to win women voters just as Obama appears to be winning black voters. The verdict is out on that.

PENNSYLVANIA - to be continued.

This PSF is long enough, so allow me to hold my Pennsylvania political update until the next one, after today's Florida primary and hopefully before Super Tuesday next week.

As always, I welcome your comments, so please do email me (delano.jon@gmail.com) with your take on things. And, again, if you hear something interesting on the political front, drop me a note.